The Salem Greyhounds, the 2012 Class 3-2A Conference champions, were beaten only once last year. That single defeat came in a third-round playoff turn against the always-dangerous Junction City Dragons, the team that went on to capture the 2012 2A state championship.
It was an impressive accomplishment for head coach Cody Curtis’ first year at the helm of the Greyhounds. But while he is aware of the lofty precedent he has set, Curtis isn’t interested in resting on his laurels; instead, he’s looking to translate that experience into another winning season.
“I think our strength will be experience in the backfield and our skills positions,” Curtis said. “We have everybody but our tight end returning, three-year starters, … so we have all seniors there, and we have a young man who stepped in, and he’s doing a good job for us receiving and stuff and playing tight end. So we’re very skilled there.”
Regarding negatives, the coach said, “Basically, our weakness is an unproven defensive line and some offensive line spots. I think we’ve got some good guys to go there; it’s just that we lost some starters there last year, so we’re having to find some new ones.”
Although Curtis graduated eight players last year, 14 members of this year’s 32-man roster are seniors.
Curtis acknowledged a certain amount of pressure going into this season. Last year marked Salem’s best season in school history, and as a result, the Greyhounds are going into 2013 ranked No. 1 in 3-2A and No. 7 in 2A, according to 2013 Hooten’s Arkansas Football.
“You know the Hooten’s magazine preseason pick, the coach’s poll, had us picked No. 1, and it’s some pressure,” he said. “But at the same time, … I think it shows how our conference feels about our kids’ talent level.”
Given last year’s success and the number of returning starters, it’s no surprise that Curtis plans little in the way of strategy changes.
“We’re not gonna change a whole lot,” he said. “We may pick up the tempo a little. … We’ve got a solid running attack, and we’re gonna try to throw the ball — some short passes and stuff — get the ball to kids who can make some yards and let them do their thing.”
And Curtis definitely has kids who can make some yards.
Two-time all-league halfback J.J. Gray (5-9, 175), who led Salem last year with 1,136 yards in 182 carries, returns to the backfield, joined again by senior fullback Augustus Freeman (6-1, 205), who couples 4.7 speed with a 315-pound bench press and a 550-pound dead lift. Freeman finished 2012 with 719 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s the guy for us,” Curtis said of Freeman. “He’s ‘The Beast.’”
Quarterback Dillon Turner (6-0, 180) accounted for 1,804 yards and 26 touchdowns for the Greyhounds last year, earning all-conference honors for the second year in a row. Curtis said Turner may also split time at one of the cornerback slots.
Heath Goodman (5-11, 155) will fill the split end slot, and Lane Kirkland (5-10, 165) will divide time at flanker, wingback and slot receiver.
On defense, Curtis said seniors Christian Earl (6-4, 300) and Mike Hart (6-2, 245) will anchor the line at right and left tackle, respectively, with Hart moving to tackle from center.
In the secondary, Goodman and Kirkland, who split 14 interceptions last year, will play corner and safety, respectively.
“I kind of expect those guys to shine in there,” Curtis said.
Gray will double at outside linebacker.
Dakota Reynolds (5-11, 170) will play middle linebacker/safety.
“We’re also looking forward to seeing a lot out of Hunter Delargy (5-6, 175),” Curtis said. “He’s gonna play the other middle linebacker spot, kind of the general of our defense. He stepped in there and played a few games last year … started a few games and played in quite a few others. He’s gonna probably be another two-way starter for us this year at center and middle linebacker.”
“Our other corner position will be a tossup between a few players,” Curtis said. “We’ve got some athletic guys who we think can do it. In another couple of weeks we’ll be finding out for sure.”
As for his predictions for the season, Curtis mentioned several key conference matchups as games he’s circling on the calendar, including East Poinsett County, McCrory and Cross County, but he was quick to add that in the 3-2A Conference no opponent can be taken lightly.
“I really think our conference is going to be pretty solid top-to-bottom, so really and truly, they’re all important,” he said. “If things go right, if we stay healthy, we should be hopefully competing for our conference championship. I mean, we’ve always got some good competition in our conference, but I think we have the guys in place to be able to do that. We’ve had a great summer so far, and we’re just looking forward to the season.”